The talkie revolution had been steadily rising in motion pictures since the late 1920's. Charlie Chaplin, the world's most famous and beloved movie figure, had resisted joining the growing revolution with his most recent film City Lights in 1931.
Chaplin's follow-up film, Modern Times, was originally planned and scheduled to be Chaplin's first full-length talkie. Charlie had written an entire sound script and it looked like Chaplin's world famous persona, "the little tramp," would finally be speaking in a movie, in this, Chaplin's 77th motion picture. But after giving the idea second thoughts, Chaplin shifted gears and decided to go back to the idea of a silent film. The little tramp, he reasoned, was a universal figure, and with the first words he spoke, he would lose much of his worldwide audience.
Production on Modern Times (the film's working title was The Masses) began on October 11, 1934. Modern Times would tell the story of Chaplin's tramp being caught up in the ever-growing industrial world and how he coped with it.
The film was partly inspired by a conversation Chaplin had had with Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi had commented to Chaplin about how in the current age, machines were taking over. Chaplin replied by saying, "I grant that machinery with only the consideration of profit has thrown men out of work and created a great idea of misery, but to use it as a service to humanity... should be a help and a benefit to mankind." Chaplin came to realize that the initial part of his statement (about machinery being created only for profit and throwing men out of work) was actually the part of his statement that mattered and fell into agreement with Gandhi.
Chaplin was also influenced by his recent travels in Europe on a tour to promote City Lights. On this tour he had witnessed the effects the Great Depression had caused and the toll it had taken on the masses.
Modern Times would have a new twist, instead of a lone tramp, Charlie would this time be accompanied in many of his adventures by a female gamin, played by his current romantic interest, the beautiful Paulette Goddard (The gamin's name in the film was Ellen Peterson). Chaplin was reputedly married to Paulette at this time, although no proof exists to verify the fact that their wedding ever took place.
Paulette reported to the set on her first day of shooting with her hair perfectly coiffed. Chaplin, seeing his gamin dolled up like a glamour girl, took a bucket of water and unceremoniously poured it over her head. In his incredibly blunt, crude (and cruel) way, Chaplin was telling Paulette that he wanted the gamin to be dirty-faced and dressed in shabby rags. She was, after all, a street urchin.
Although still a silent film, Chaplin would use mechanical effects to simulate character's voices and other effects in Modern Times (Chaplin had used this idea similarly in City Lights).
The little tramp is initially a factory worker on an assembly line in the film. In perhaps <>Modern Times most iconic scene, Charlie is accidentally swallowed up into the huge mechanical device within the factory, which resembles the inside of a huge projector, full of cogwheels and gears.
The machine was actually made of rubber and wood, not the apparent steel, but was still uncomfortable enough for Charlie to shoot the iconic scene just once. When Charlie is pulled backwards, again through the giant cogwheels, and returned to the factory and the assembly line, he refused to shoot the bit as such, deciding instead to simply run the already shot film backwards.
Chaplin devoted eight days to shooting the roller skating scene, where he is blindfolded and continuously skates, unknowingly and very precariously, to the edge of the high-up store floor. Although the scene looks scary and as if Charlie is just about to fall a lengthy drop over the store's precipice, the dangerous-looking large drop was actually a painted scene on a pane of glass carefully placed in front of the camera to align with the existing set and create the illusion of great height.
Chaplin, besides writing, directing, producing and starring in Modern Times, also composed much of the film's music. Alfred Newman, musical director for United Artists, was brought in to record and conduct the film's score. Chaplin sat in on all the recording sessions, interrupting often, ordering retakes, overruling Newman's decisions and instructions to the orchestra.
Chaplin would often work long hours, into the early morning. During one late night session, Chaplin accused Newman of being lazy. The composer stomped out and never worked with Chaplin again. Newman's assistant, Eddie Powell, would replace him.
Chaplin hating delegating authority, wanting instead to be there and participate in every facet of the film. He even blew the bubbles into a pool of water to simulate a stomach rumbling in one scene.
Chaplin composed perhaps his most beautiful and haunting melody for Modern Times, the classic song "Smile." "Smile," as used in Modern Times, had no words. But in 1954, John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons added the perfect lyrics to compliment Chaplin's song. Nat King Cole recorded his rendition of the song that same year and "Smile" reached the #10 spot on the charts. "Smile" is now rightfully regarded as a standard.
The most anticipated moment of Modern Times was unquestionably the first spoken words by the tramp. Instead of actually speaking in dialogue, Chaplin opted instead to break the tramp's silence in the form of a song. At precisely one hour and twenty minutes into Modern Times, the most famous figure in the history of the movies spoke (sang) his first words, in the form of a French song called "Je Cherchez Aprèz Titine." The lyrics of the song are gibberish, but Charlie acts the tune out in pantomime, and it is easy to follow the melody's gist. Charlie's version of the song was dubbed "The Nonsense Song."
By the late spring of 1935, Chaplin was working 16-18 hours a day on Modern Times (he often slept on a cot in the studio). Production on the film, after 324 days, finally concluded on August 30, 1935.
The film was originally supposed to end with Charlie having a nervous breakdown and being visited in the hospital by the gamin, who is now a nun. This ending was filmed, but apparently does not survive (except in stills).
Modern Times was to officially usher in the end of the silent era in movies. With the exception of a few novelty films, most notably Mel Brooks' Silent Movie (1976) and The Artist (2011), the silent era was ended with Chaplin's production. The final official title card of the silent era was the little tramp saying the words "Buck up! Never say die! We'll get along!" to the gamin. Modern Times ends, uncharacteristically, with the tramp walking down the familiar road to new adventures, not alone, but with his shapely companion.
Modern Times premiered at the Rivoli Theater in New York on February 5, 1936. Chaplin did not attend. The last time he made a public appearance in New York, he "had a terrible time battling through the crowds." He dreaded another experience of "being stared at and pointed at as though I were a freak." Although he did not attend himself, Chaplin wanted the press to view the film with an audience. No previews or advance screenings of Modern Times were permitted by Charlie. He needn't have worried, the reviews were unanimously positive, mainly raves.
Frank Nugent of the New York Times: "Same old Charlie, the lovable little fellow whose hands and feet and prankish eyebrows can beat an irresistible tattoo upon an audience's funnybone or hold it still, taut beneath the spell of human tragedy... time has not changed his genius."
John Mosher of the New Yorker: "Chaplin manufactures some superb laughs.. in all, it's a rambling sketch, if a little at loose ends at times, sometimes rather slight in effect and then secure in it's rich, old-fashioned funniness."
Film Daily: "Chaplin has scored one of his greatest triumphs."
Variety: "Great fun and sound entertainment."
Burns Mantle: "Another hilariously rowdy success".
Interestingly, although popular, Modern Times actually lost money in the United States. Sadly, because of the film's apparent anti-capitalist stance, in some quarters, Chaplin was thought to be, and was even accused of being a communist sympathizer in the United States. Chaplin was to spend the remainder of his life vehemently denying these charges.
It cleaned up, however, in foreign countries- it was the most popular film in England during the 1935-36 season. However, Modern Times was banned in Nazi Germany on grounds of "promoting communism." In 1952, the communist charges were to cause Chaplin to leave his home in the United States and spend the last 25 years of his life in Vevey, Switzerland.
Modern Times is now rightfully regarded as one of Chaplin's finest works. In 1989, the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. In 2000, the American Film Institute voted it #33 on it's 100 Years... 100 Laughs list of the 100 funniest American films of all-time. In 2007, AFI voted Modern Times #78 on it's 100 Years... 100 Movies list of the 100 greatest American motion pictures of all-time. Modern Times influence has stretched even into our collective consciousness in modern American pop culture.
In the classic episode of I Love Lucy, 1954's "Job Switching," Lucy and Ethel (Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance) go to work on a chocolate candy assembly line, which goes too fast, forcing the girls to stuff the excess chocolates into their dresses, their pockets, inside their hats, and in their mouths. This beloved scene is a direct homage to Charlie Chaplin's encounter with an overwhelming assembly line almost two decades earlier.
In another scene in Modern Times, a fantasy sequence, Charlie arrives home and greets Paulette (the gamin), and as he enters the living room, he trips over a footstool. The Dick Van Dyke Show was to pay homage to Charlie at the beginning of each episode, when Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, would trip over the ottoman in the Petrie living room as he walks in to greet his wife and their guests.